Monday, September 28, 2009

Future Knitters

I wanted to post this since our visit to the community last week, but didn't have a chance until now.

On Friday Davy and I visited Toul Sambo again to have a short meeting with community members to tell them about Cambodia Knits training, working for CK, training dates and so on. When we arrived, Hope, a health organization (I have tried to look it up, but there are at least a dozen orgs with HOPE somewhere in their names) was there giving basic check-ups, distributing ARVs and holding a short meeting to pass on some health messages.

We introduced CK to everyone there. Some had met us the week before, but most people had been away for Pchum Ben so it was there first time to hear about the training and the possibility of working for us. I showed some of the completed monsters and they were very well received (lots of smiles from the kids). Everyone was very eager to give knitting a try, to see if they could learn how to make the funny creatures.

Surprisingly enough, there are several men who want to try as well! I had presumed that only women would be interested, as knitting is generally considered in the
feminine domain (not saying I agree, but really, that is the generalization) perhaps even more so in Cambodia. I had always imagined that the project would be about helping women in these communities, but if men want to join, I can't and won't have any objections. One of the men used to work as a motodup (motorbike taxi driver for those not savvy in the ways of Cambodia) before the relocation. The city is too far for him to travel to from Toul Sambo. He has five children to support on his own and if knitting for CK is going to help him do that, all the power to him!

Some potential points of conflict: another organization, a medium sized international NGO working on various projects around Cambodia, has talked to the community leader and the vice-governor about setting up handicrafts training in the community. Their support, however, will stop at training and not provide any access to markets. Also, the community leader, who encouraged the community members to accept the relocation and who currently lives in PP in an apartment given as thanks for these efforts, is drawing up a proposal to get funding to build a handicrafts center and 20 sewing machines. Ultimately it will be up to the community to decide which is the most advantageous and suitable for them.

That being said, the above two proposals are 'in the air' and no one is certain how or indeed if they will materialize. Its important, however, to be aware of the other things that are in motion in the community and be prepared for any possibility. Again, having the support of Davy, who knows the community well will be invaluable. In the next few weeks, we'll visit the community once a week (myself and three knitters/trainers) to introduce the first steps of knitting, find out who is willing to commit to the training, collect some basic information about each family and start to build relationships. Building relationships based on trust and respect is not something that many businesses aim for with their employees, but for a social enterprise, I don't see how we can have any hope of success without it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The monsters are here!!!

Not much to say except: YAY! We finally got it all together. Here's just a few but there will be many more in the days to come!!

Again, these wonderful monsters are patterns from the brilliant Rebecca Danger. You can find them here if you want to make your own. Or just go and look at her other wonderful patterns.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Small update on post below

I just got a wonderful email with Davy explaining her handicraft business in more detail. I hadn't realized that she started the business on her own with only 50 USD in 2001 making greeting cards by herself to sell to a few market stalls and built it up over the years into a business that employs over 140 women from the poorest communities. She's diversified into paper flowers and other handicrafts, all of which she taught herself to make! She is truly an amazing woman and I'm very fortunate to have her to learn from.

Davy's Flowers

So I wrote that I would post about Davy's project and show some photos so here goes:

So Davy works for the Phnom Penh City Hall on their urban poverty alleviation project. It had been supported by UN-Habitat, but once funding ended, she lost all her staff. Now it's just her, with no budget and lots of pressure. She has had her own handicrafts business for some time and involves some of the communities she knows about in PP. She trains women in making flowers out of corn husks, bamboo leaves and other natural materials which are usually found as garbage around markets. I haven't worked out the process, but they dry, cut and paint them. The result: 100% recycled, natural, handmade flowers (not sure what the dye is or how eco-friendly it is, but will find out). Even the leaves are somehow dried and preserved.

She buys all the finished flowers from the women, paying a very fair wage, brings them to her shop and her staff there arrange them for sale. For PP residents, the shop is on Street 106, the double road that runs from the train station to the river, on the north side, close to the river. She also has a stall at the night market which is close to her shop (Fri-Sun nights, 6pm-10pm).

Davy is quite well established and organized, although she is looking to expand her market base. She wants to get in contact with 10 000 villages and if I have time, I'd like to try to help her reach the Internet market. Although we both will have to work out how to ship products from not-Cambodia. The postal system here is too unreliable and slow. I mailed a package of tea to a friend a few years ago. It took, no joke, 18 months before he received it! That is just not consumer friendly. A simple trip across the border to Thailand will eliminate any such silliness as the Thai postal system is very reliable, fast and cheap.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Toul Sambo

This morning I drove out to the Toul Sambo relocation site with Davy, PhD student Julie who has been doing research at the community even before the eviction, and two knitters, Mony and Rofi. Today's visit was to meet briefly with the community, show them some knitted products and make plans for a meeting next week. A lot of families were away as Pchum Ben (festival of the dead) starts tomorrow and this is one of two times in the year when everyone (who is able to) travels to the provinces.

First some background on evictions in Cambodia in condensed form. Land values in Cambodia and especially in Phnom Penh have skyrocketed over the past few years. Many poor urban communities that have been living in crowded pockets of the city for years or decades, now find themselves occupying prime land. Many of them are eligible for land titles under the current land laws but because rule of law is a fiction here, most of them are facing eviction. Or have already been evicted.

Last week, the government canceled a World Bank project (LMAP) which had been working since 2002 to develop a fair and transparent system of providing land titles. A recent internal study showed that while the project had had some success in rural areas, it had mostly failed to secure land rights for the poor in urban areas. Its attempts to remedy this situation were not taken well by the government and Hun Sen very publicly ended the program, stating in a speech that the WB rules were too complicated and the project came with too many conditions. Those conditions: follow the law and give land titles to those people with rights to them, not to highest bidder.

So evictions continue and the recent forced resettlement of families from Borei Keila to Toul Sambo was particularly condemned locally and internationally. The reason: the majority of the families have at least one member who is HIV positive. In the process of deciding which families would be granted an apartment in the city and which would not, these families were sidelined from the start. By moving them all to a location outside of the city, far from medical care and grouped together into what other locals call "the AIDS village," authorities have made it incredibly difficult for these families to survive. Read more about the background of the community and the eviction here and here and here.

This is the community that Davy suggested I work with and why we drove out there today. The situation is as grim as the newspaper articles tell it. The rooms are small and hot. According to Julie, a rep from Doctors Without Borders who had worked in emergency relief situations said the house construction did not even meet the basic standards of emergency housing. Furthermore, he believes that the structures won't last for more than a couple years of heavy rains as the foundations are not constructed well. There is no running water and inadequate sewage system. Now the residents can collect rainwater but what happens in the dry season? There is nowhere to find work nearby and community members can't even hope to establish small businesses as locals won't buy from them anyway.

Below are some photos of the site. The first two are of the "shelters" where the Borei Keila community is living. Each family shares a room 3.5 x 4.5 meters. The third photo is of the buildings only a few meters away that are being saved for soon-to-be-evicted families from another area of Phnom Penh. These are much larger and of much higher quality.

Relocation sites don't need to be this bad! The municipality of Phnom Penh spent as little money as possible to construct this site (one can only speculate how much was lost at various stages to corruption) and did it quickly with little planning. They moved the families there even before adequate infrastructure was put in.

It's very likely Cambodia Knits will start to work here. Mony and Rofi showed some interested women finger puppets and Bunny Nuggets. They also showed them some basic techniques and how to cast on. A lot of women rushed in to give it a try and according to Davy they are really keen to learn new skills so they can produce something (anything) to provide for their families. The next step will be to organize the training and a few weeks later get them set up with enough materials to be able to start knitting!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

BKK Stash o' Yarn

I am back from Thailand and lugged home over 10 kilograms of yarn with me. The shopping was not as super as I had hoped, but I did bring back some reasonable quality acrylic semi-bulky yarn. I also picked out a sampling of bulky and super bulky yarns for experimentation purposes. The knitters are happily, dare I say somewhat excitedly, knitting up monsters in the new yarns. The bulky yarns are mixes of wool and acrylic and the knitters have never knit with anything other than acrylic and some cotton. They've never experienced anything so bulky either and the monsters will be much bigger than previous ones.

Below is some stash. Yarn-o-philes, have not any envy: its mostly acrylic.

I have a twilight zone story from Bangkok, but I will leave it for tomorrow.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I'm off to (one night in) Bangkok for two nights and 2 hectic days of trying to find all the goodies that are lacking in PP. I'm sure I can find most of what we need, it will just be a matter of being sleuth-ful and patient. I'm not taking the camera with me since it's too bulky (curses on the person who stole my Cybershot two years ago) and I don't want to have any more to carry around than I am going to be buying. I'll post photos of the stash when I get back on Tuesday night.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Finally, something about CK

So I just finished a casual meeting with a woman from City Hall, Davy. She's a project manager with a poverty reduction programme they have, but I didn't hear much about this. She's been involved in UNHABITAT and knows a lot of the poor communities in and around Phnom Penh. She also has been involved in some of the relocation sites and runs a handicraft business in order to provide employment to poor families in those areas. Seems we are on the same page.

She recommended one relocation site where she has met with the families and they are very eager to get some training and work. She doesn't have enough of a market for any more of her products (says she has a surplus now) and wants to introduce me to the community to see if it is possible to start a knitting workshop there. Its great to have someone who knows the people and the situation well and to get introduced that way. I'll visit the site with her sometime next week.

Another option that is still open is to work with women from around the old dump site at Stung Meanchey. Again, I have a friend with a very deep connection to and understanding of the community who is willing to help me in building a strong foundation of trust. This is going to be important because each site will have to be somewhat tailored to the needs of the community. The products will be the same and the expectation of quality will remain high, but how we engage with the knitters and train them will need to be sensitive to local realities.

I'll post some photos of the kinds of products that the women Davy works with produce tomorrow. They make flowers out of corn husks, bamboo leaves and other such waste products and they are really impressive! More on that later.

To end on a very, very sad note, Meow is still missing. Its been almost 3 weeks now and I still have crying spells and minor depression. I've hired a pet detective to look for her and printed hundreds of photos of her to hand out. Today is a very lucky day, or so the Chinese population of Cambodia say, being 090909. I hope it beings us some luck and Meow comes home tonight..... :...(

Monday, September 7, 2009

Still unrelated

So, there is still nothing new to report on the knitting front so I give you another photo:

This is one of my favourite sites along the road from Phnom Penh to Ratanakiri. Usually, you see three or four motorcycles like this, traveling to the city together. I've been told the reason they do this is to save money on taxes. If all the beds were put onto a lorry and brought into PP that way, a tax would need to be paid. There is no tax for bringing in goods into the city on a moto. Thanks to this, you see dozens of ridiculously overloaded motos everyday.

If you have any doubts about how difficult carrying a king sized bed on the back of a moto might be, stop now. The bed in the photo is not one of those light weight IKEA particle board numbers, but a full fledged wooden bed. We have one at home and it takes two people just to reposition it. To move it, it needs to be disassembled and then each component requires at least two people. These guys who do this everyday are nothing short of amazing!

Friday, September 4, 2009

7 elephants

So since there is not much to report on the knitting front (we're knitting, we're waiting for plastic eyes; hearing that over and over again is sure to become dull), I've decided to post some random photos of interesting things in and around Phnom Penh. For those of you who live here (or have) this might not be so interesting, but for those of you who haven't, this regular installment could be. So here are the first slices of life in PP:

PP traffic police are well known for their ineptitude and incompetence. When a traffic light goes out and the traffic cops take over, you can expect it to take at least five times as long to get through an intersection. All this changes when a VIP is traveling through. When this happens, these dudes are so swift and professional at stopping all traffic, in every direction, putting hundreds, nay thousands of people to a standstill, its amazing to see them so mobile and active. Until the Big Man zips through at top speed and then they go back to usual sloth like behvaiour.

7 elephants. Don't need to say much about this one except that is a brilliant rip off! Can you count 7 elephants in the logo which is otherwise exactly like a certain chain...

This is just...hmmm. The Gentle Dental Clinic. Its quite new but already it has more clients than the Brutal Dental Clinic just up the street.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One down, two to go...

My complaining paid off and one package finally arrived; the one from my sister. So I'll keep complaining and hopefully that will enable the release of the second parcel from the PO, the one full of plastic safety eyes. If not, its countdown to my trip to BKK where I can pick them up along with tapestry needles, felt, more yarn samples and other such fun and necessary things. Thanks to AirAsia, I can get to and from BKK for 79USD!

The knitters are following the Ramadan tradition of fasting during the day and I don't know how they do it in this heat! I would go crazy without at least 3 liters of water a day... Not only do they manage it, but they continue knitting like machines, churning out monster after monster. I really look forward to being able to post pictures of the finished monsters ( office...bleep bleep).

Also, if you have ideas for kids games, go here and enter a blog contest with some lovely prizes.